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Serving the Fine-Art Market

The fine-art printing market requires knowledge and skills the commercial wide-format market does not–here's what you need to know.

Making fine-art prints might seem like an easy “side step” for a wide-format print shop. After all, it’s just another form of ink on substrate, right?

Right—but also wrong. Fine-art printing differs in many ways from commercial or business-to-business printing, and failure to take those differences into account could sink any attempt to enter that market.

For one thing, the clients are different—artists aren’t like your other customers. Furthermore, the process requires specialized materials and knowledge. And good word of mouth trumps advertising even more than it does in the commercial market.
To find out what it takes to be successful in the fine-art market, we looked at several shops that have made a successful go of it. We talked to representatives at Ditto Editions in Salem, Massachusetts (dittoeditions.com); Silicon Gallery Fine Art Prints in Philadelphia (fineartprint.com); Iolabs in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (iolabsinc.com); Masterlab in Salt Lake City (masterlabphoto.com); and The Color Group in Seattle (thecolorgroup.com). The first three started business as fine-art printers, while Masterlab grew out of a traditional photo lab, and The Color Group began as a traditional color house.

Moving into the fine-art market is possible for any shop that doesn’t take the requirements for granted. From our conversations, we’ve come up with eight principles that, if followed, can help you make a successful foray into that business.

Principle 1: Artists are picky
Artists aren’t like commercial customers—they require a lot more personal interaction. Eric Nielsen of The Color Group says, “You have to work with artists closely. Rarely will an artist just drop something off and expect to pick it up five days later. It’s not like they’re buying a tradeshow banner that people will walk past for two days. Their work might be hanging somewhere for 50 or 100 years.”

Rick De Coyte of Silicon Gallery Fine Art Prints echoes Nielsen’s sentiment: “With artists, it’s not ‘Here’s the image,’ ‘Here’s your money.’ Artists are going to demand that you make the print the way they want it rather than just taking it the way it comes out of the machine.”

And Masterlab’s Heath Brown warns that sometimes artists will ask for the seemingly impossible. “Artists can get to the point where they’re seeing something that isn’t even there. A piece might have 20 different reds, and they want each one nailed distinctly.”

Principle 2: It starts with capture
Unlike a lot of commercial work that gets delivered as a digital file, artists are usually going to bring you a physical object—e.g., a painting—that they need digitized somehow. Some might have that done before they come to you, but don’t count on it: Nielsen says, “About 60 percent of our work needs capture, while 40 percent have that done themselves and give us a CD or a transparency.” The upside to capturing the image yourself is that it’s easier to control the color workflow if you start with a device you know.

Capture is generally done in one of three ways: with a high-quality digital camera or camera back, with a high-quality scanner used to scan an analog transparency photograph of the art, or with a scanner that can scan the art directly. The choice depends on the size and type of art, among other factors. But you can’t afford to take the process lightly. Artwork has nuances of color and texture that have to be captured in the beginning, or you’ll never get them into the print.

Susan Fader of Ditto Editions says, “What sets us apart is our digital capture and imaging. We use a BetterLight camera back to capture the image, and we take proprietary steps to ensure color accuracy. We profile each piece of art individually, and we light each piece individually, for example, to make sure we don’t get spectral highlights or glare.”

Other shops use scanners for smaller items, saving the camera for artwork that can’t be directly scanned. Ted Pfeffer of Iolabs says, “We provide scanning in-house, on a Creo IQSmart scanner. If it’s oversize, we have it shot by a photographer in-house, with a Hasselblad scanning back.”

And The Color Group’s Nielsen recounts, “We have a Crosfield drum scanner that we used back in the day to capture transparencies. As long as the piece of art is flexible, it can go around the drum. If it’s framed or on a stretcher bar, we capture it with a camera, which we outsource to a photo studio down the street.”

Masterlab’s Brown, on the other hand, uses his cameras for the smaller items: “Artwork up to 24 x 30 inches, say, we capture with a high-resolution digital camera, either a Kodak or a Nikon, at 14 megapixels. For anything bigger than that, we shoot a 4 x 5 transparency and scan that on a Scitex/Creo or Epson flatbed scanner.”

Another consideration: Don’t forget that when you’re dealing with original art, you’re in charge of possibly delicate materials of great value. This means you have to be prepared to store and handle the pieces appropriately.

Principle 3: Know your color
To ensure that all the effort you put into good capture isn’t for naught, you need to make sure you have accurate color profiles for your media, printer, and possibly monitor. But the good news is that once you get your color workflow set up and locked down, the proofing and color-correction process becomes fairly straightforward.

Brown says, “At Masterlab, we have a dedicated computer to drive the printers we use for art, and we have a LaCie monitor connected to a Mac and dialed in tight to match those printers. We can fine-tune the colors on that monitor. We use some color profiles from the material manufacturers, and some we make ourselves with an X-Rite i1 calibrator.”

At The Color Group, Nielsen says, “We have a bunch of different stations with viewing booths, going back to when we were a color house. We bring up the image on a calibrated Barco or NEC monitor in Adobe Photoshop and compare it to the original. We’ll also print color swatches for further comparison.”

Ditto’s Fader takes a similar tack: “For proofing, we pick the best areas of the painting, print strips, and hold them next to the original under controlled lighting. Then we tweak, pull a new strip, tweak further, and so on.”

But, Brown warns, it’s not enough just to have a proofing setup. “You need to have someone who can see and know color. When you copy the painting, no matter how you do it, it doesn’t come out looking like the original. You have to be able to look at the image and know how and where to tweak it.”

Fader agrees. “We can look at a proof and see where it’s off,” she says. “But if you haven’t already messed with the image to get rid of flaws from the capture, it’s easy.”

Principle 4: Know your materials
The range of substrates available for fine-art printing is vast, from specialized paper to canvas-like cloth. Your customers will expect you to know about them, so be prepared for an investment of both time and money. As Nielsen says, “There are a lot of papers out there. There’s a lot of education needed to get into this field.”

Brown advises, “Artists want to know about the materials—what’s it made of, how long will it last, will it stretch well? We give them the manufacturer’s specs, but it’s our experience that makes us comfortable guaranteeing what will work well.”

And, Silicon Gallery’s De Coyte says, the artist will want to see what you’re printing on. “We show the artist paper and canvas samples, and we have color charts for different papers. We’ll stock 15 or 20 different materials, so the investment in the paper and the canvas is pretty high.”

Principle 5: The print is the artwork
You may think of fine-art printing as an exercise in duplicating an original, but artists sometimes want more than that. Many artists regard the printing process as another step in the production of the final work and will ask you to do more than just replicate what they give you.

Dave Witbeck (witbeck.com), a Rhode Island artist and client of Iolabs, is one of those artists. “I’m not a nitpicker when it comes to color, as long as it looks good. I was a professional photographer for 25 years, and by the time my work got printed in a magazine, the color was going to change anyway. That’s the way I am about giclées, too—I just want it to be good.”

“I’ve actually asked for the proofs to be made less like the original, to boost color or increase contrast,” Witbeck continues. “After the first proof, the original painting is almost irrelevant. No one’s going to see it anyway.”

Witbeck isn’t the only artist Pfeffer and Iolab work with who feels that way. “A lot of our artists are young, urban illustrators and painters who love the technology but are
using it to do a variety of renditions of their work on different materials,” Pfeffer explains.

“An artist might come in with an original painted with oil paints on a plywood panel and ask to make prints. We’ll show them a variety of materials, from bamboo fiber paper to aluminum. Some of our customers do editions on wood veneer of a black line-art illustration they did on white paper, or full-color illustrations printed on sheet aluminum.

They’re getting away from the idea of making it look exactly like the painting. It becomes a different animal altogether. We have more of that kind of work than we do traditional reproduction.”

For De Coyte, reproductions are almost a niche market. “We do exact reproductions, or ‘facsimiles,’” he says, “but generally only for historical paintings. Most of the time, we’re trying to make beautiful prints based on the original, according to the artist’s wishes.”

Perhaps Brown sums it up best: “Some artists want an exact reproduction—but some want the giclée to improve the art.”

Principle 6: Offer service after the sale
The job isn’t done when the artist is satisfied with the print. Or rather, it can be, but artists will ask for more, and the savvy shop will be prepared to give it to them. “Artists expect finishing services, such as stretching canvas,” Nielsen says. “We do some in house, but there’s a framer down the street.”

At Ditto, Fader even provides business advice. “We do more than say, ‘Here’s your print, good luck.’ We coach them in marketing their work, even down to how they should price it.”

Furthermore, unlike a lot of commercial jobs, a successful piece of art may be reprinted later. The shops we talk to archive their customers’ work themselves to make it easy to run off subsequent editions.

De Coyte describes Silicon Gallery’s approach: “The artist can have the files if they want them, but we archive everything ourselves, too. Sometimes, rather than a full print run, we suggest that artists try print on demand. Why make 50 prints if you’re not going to sell them all?”

In keeping with their marketing support, Ditto gives its customers even more choices. “We archive files three ways,” Fader explains. “The client gets a CD with the full-res, full-size capture as a TIFF. On the same disc, we give them two JPEGs, one at 72 dpi for Web use and one at 300 dpi for printing. And each client has an online portfolio page that they can direct people to.”

Principle 7: Serve the local market
Much of your fine-art printing business will be local, because shipping art is expensive and artists want to see what you’re doing with their prize possessions. At The Color Group, Nielsen adds, “Our business is probably 80 percent local. Even before we started making art prints, we were already doing scanning and color for a lot of local art catalogs, so we had contacts with a lot of artists in the area. We’ve also done work on a directory of galleries in the local ‘art walk’ for 11 years now, and we’ve been able to tap that resource.”

A side effect of being locally oriented is that your customers are likely to move in the same circles and talk to each other. Nielsen says, “A lot of our customers come via word of mouth, some driven by the Internet.”

To Fader, the local orientation is a plus. “We don’t look to grow beyond New England and New York because we like to have a relationship with our customers. It allows us to really understand them. And the artists can walk in and see every aspect of our business and understand what we do.”

Principle 8: Decide what to call the product
The term ‘giclée,’ which has cropped up a couple of times in this article, has been applied to digital art prints since the 1990s. But some shops feel the term is outmoded or has negative connotations (besides the lewd one it has in French) and prefer not to use it for their products.

Of course, if that’s what your customers call it, you probably don’t want to correct them, Nielsen says. “A lot of artists use the term. They call and they can’t even pronounce it, but they want to know if we do it.”

De Coyte, on the other hand, says that ‘giclée’ “is generally used to refer to canvas reproductions you find in a mall. We call ours ‘pigment prints.’” [Editor’s note: Of course, this term is used only for prints created with pigment-based inks.]

To Pfeffer, the term has the same baggage. “We don’t use the word giclée—we prefer ‘Ultrachrome prints’ or ‘pigment prints.’ Giclée has too many connotations of bad paintings reproduced on canvas, like the stuff you see sold in galleries in a tourist town.”

Fader rejects the term even more emphatically. “The generic use of the word is undermining this industry’s future. There are no professional associations or guidelines or standards for what you can call a giclée. It’s a meaningless term.”

Longevity, technology, and positioning
The fine-art market can make a big difference in a print shop’s bottom line, as long as it—and the resulting clients—are given the proper attention and respect. Follow the guidelines we’ve discussed here, and you can be well-positioned to welcome artists among your shop’s best customers.

See also: "Bubbletagging for Certification."

Based in San Francisco, freelance writer Jake Widman
is a long-time contributor to
The Big Picture.

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